Are Mexican Taco Salads Healthy?

By Mary Parsons, MS, RD

We’ve all heard the jokes about taco salads, right? The ones with the punchline about the small amount of lettuce hidden under piles of meat, cheese, fried tortillas, and other high-calorie toppings? Leave it to Healthy Dining’s dietitians to bring back the healthy taco salad! If you make the right selections, a taco salad can be not just delicious, but healthy, too!

First things first: start with a healthy foundation. A few crunchy tortilla chips are OK as a garnish, but don’t succumb to the enormous fried tostada bowl. If the salad comes in a fried shell, request a real bowl instead so you won’t be compelled to munch on it – and so its greasy surfaces won’t taint your virtuous veggies!

Ground beef may be the classic Mexican choice for protein, but varying methods of preparation and grades of meat make it difficult to predict the fat content without a nutrition label. When possible, opt instead for grilled chicken or shrimp, or try beans for a vegetarian option.

Ready for your secret weapon for maximizing flavor while minimizing fat and calories? The answer is veggies! In addition to your leafy greens, load up on tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro, and whatever else you can get your hands on! Don’t be shy about requesting extra veggies that aren’t listed on your salad, but that you know are available at the restaurant. Avocado is a special case: it’s relatively high in fat, but it’s a “good fat” which can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. So a scoop of guacamole is a healthy way to give your salad rich and creamy flavor – just watch the portion if you’re concerned about calories.

Most salads aren’t complete without a drizzle of dressing, but in my opinion, the taco salad may be the exception to the rule. Instead of weighing down your salad with heavy ranch dressing, try a simple scoop of salsa as the finishing touch for your fresh Mexican meal. That’s a taco salad we can get excited about!